“Ben Is Back” works best when it focuses on the troubled family relationship between its two main characters. As they struggle to do their best despite their longtime problem which will not be easily solved, the movie handles their circumstance with considerable sensitivity and sincerity, but then it makes a wrong move during its second half, and that is a shame considering the diligent efforts from its two lead performers.
In the beginning, we meet Holy Burns (Julia Roberts), a plain suburban woman living with her second husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) and her three children. It is Christmas Eve, and she surely hopes for a nice Christmas Eve evening with her loving family, but then there suddenly comes Ben (Lucas Hedges), who is her oldest child and has had a serious drug addiction problem since he got hooked on painkiller after a minor accident several years ago. He looks fine now thanks to his recent time at a rehabilitation center, but his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and Neal are rather skeptical in contrast to Holy, who is certainly cautious but happy to see her son again anyway.
Frankly recognizing his problem and those damages caused by that, Ben tries to get along well with his family members, and there is a warm, intimate scene where he has a little fun time with his two young half-siblings, but he is often reminded of what may happen at any point because of the urge still remaining inside him. When he and Ivy go to the attic for getting some decoration items for their Christmas tree at one point, he becomes very uncomfortable because he used to hide his drugs in the attic, and it is clear to us that he is still quite emotionally vulnerable to his drug addiction.
After discussing with her husband on how to handle her son’s unexpected visit, Holy decides to put some restriction on her son. While he is allowed to spend Christmas Eve and the following day along with her and their family, he has to go through a drug test for confirming his current sober condition, and he also has to be always around his mother just in case. Although he is rather reluctant at first, he follows his mother’s demands anyway, and things look a bit more hopeful as they later go together to a local mall for buying additional Christmas gifts.
They also attend a local meeting for recovering drug addicts, and the movie gives us a good scene where Ben and several other recovering drug addicts frankly tell about their drug addiction problem and current status. While Holy is certainly proud of her son being on the way to more sobriety, he is a little embarrassed as trying to be clean and honest in front of his fellow recovering drug addicts, and there subsequently comes an awkward moment when he encounters someone to whom he sold drugs once during his dark period in the past.
And it turns out that the past is not wholly through with him. When he and his family come back from a local church in the evening, they are shocked to find that someone broke into their house, and Ben has a pretty good idea on who is responsible for this break-in. When he was at the local mall with his mother, he happened to be spotted by an old addict friend of his, who must have told about Ben’s return to some people who do not welcome that much.
The second half of the movie revolves around Ben and Holy’s attempt to handle their imminent problem. As requested by Ben, Holy drives him to several spots in their neighborhood, and she comes to see how messy and problematic her son’s situation still is. Not so surprisingly, he turns out to be less honest to her than he initially seemed, and she accordingly becomes more frustrated and exasperated than before.
Around that narrative point, the screenplay by director/writer Peter Hedges, who previously directed “Pieces of April” (2003) and “Dan in Real Life” (2007), takes several contrived plot turns, and that is where the movie becomes less effective and engaging. While there are still a few good moments such as when Holy seeks some help from an acquaintance of hers who lost a daughter to drug addiction, the movie still does not work as well as it did during its first half, and its ending is rather artificial and unsatisfying in my trivial opinion.
The two lead performers of the movie do their best for carrying the movie together. While Julia Roberts, who has been less prominent during recent years but has not lost any of her talent as shown from her Oscar-nominated turn in “Auguest: Osage County” (2013), steadily holds the ground, Lucas Hedges, who is Hedges’ son and has been quite notable since his Oscar-nominated breakthrough turn in “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), functions well as an effective counterpart, and they are always believable in their characters’ strained interactions throughout the movie. In case of the other main performers in the film, Courtney B. Vance and Kathryn Newton did a bit more than what is required from their thankless roles, and Rachel Bay Jones, a veteran actress who recently won a Tony Award for Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen”, is also fine in her small scene with Roberts later in the story.
While it is surely a sincere and sensitive drama about family and addiction, “Ben Is Back” is still a little too disappointing for me to recommend mainly due to its flawed storytelling. There is surely a better movie somewhere inside the overall result, and, to be frank with you, I think the movie could be better if it put more trust and confidence on its two lead performers.